Cinema Review: The Little Stranger

Posted 8 months ago in Cinema Reviews

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Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Talent: Domhnall Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Ruth Wilson

Released: 21 September

Most relationships begin with an act of stalking. So it’s fitting that when Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) calls round to Caroline Ayer’s (Wilson) palatial home to check up on a frightened maid, this isn’t the first time he’s been amidst the house’s grandeur. Soon, he has befriended Caroline, claiming he can offer pain relief to her brother, Roderick (Poulter), who has been left heavily disfigured by World War II. Slowly, but very surely, he inveigles his way into being more of a mainstay in the now decaying house. Faraday seems sincere in his concern for the family and burgeoning affection for Caroline, but what happened when he attended a fete at the house when he was a little boy? Has it got something to do with his almost proprietary concern for the house itself and its upkeep? And meanwhile, we learn that Caroline had a sister, the apple of her mother’s (Rampling) eye, who died. Has this something to do with Roderick’s feelings of foreboding? Will any of these questions be answered?

Well, sort of. Many of the strengths and the weaknesses of this story stem from its coyness in providing answers.

First the strengths. Abrahamson matches the novel’s restraint, letting things unfurl gradually. The film looks beautiful, the period details impressing without ever being hammered home – like the postwar Labour government heavily taxing the upper classes, hence the dissipation of the house.

The cast are superb. Gleeson is in sublime, punctilious form with a fussy moustache to match, at times likeable in his efforts to counsel the Ayers and at other times coming off constrained and overweening. Poulter brings a quiet dignity to his distractingly scarred pilot, while Wilson has a multifaceted earthiness that belies her character’s stuffy milieu.

It’s refreshing to see a ghost story that doesn’t resort to cheap pyrotechnics, and it’s audacious that it mostly takes place during the daytime, yet still manages to whip up a thick sense of dread. It’s more gratifying still that much of this dread comes from the characters: Faraday’s latent class envy; family demons; Roderick’s PTSD. Rather than jump scares, the viewer’s imagination is engaged by a thick fog of possibilities.

But such demurring also hinders the film as well. The ambiguity works better on the page, making for a rich experience, but in a medium as tactile as cinema, it feels like one is being shortchanged when a spectre from the past is too shy to properly identify itself. At times, it’s as if the film is embarrassed about being a ghost story. Sometimes, it resembles that annoying pal of yours who won’t tell you how he did a magic trick.

Still, Abrahamson ends on an image many will think decisive. Yet, as unexpected and subtle as the closing shots are, I felt curiously unsatisfied. The ending is a callback to a concept that was hastily outlined during a conversation earlier in the film. As a reveal it’s a bit too cerebral to pack a punch. Good endings should be surprising and yet feel inevitable. This denouement is thought-provoking, but I’m not sure its implications are hard-wired enough into the film’s DNA.

Misgivings aside, this uniquely subtle film deserves to be seen, although here’s hoping Abrahamson will return to original scripts. He does a great job of burnishing the literary work of others, but he has a lot to say himself. His first three films remain his best, being leaner scripts where he could explore humanity, less beholden to studios and literary sources.

Words: Rory Kiberd

Illustration: Conor Nolan

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